Mystery Shrouds Macy's Titanic Plaque

Straus Tribute From Workers Hidden by Famed Store

By Paul Berger

Published April 10, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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  • Isidor and Ida Straus


    (Straus Archive)

    Isidor and Ida Straus
  • The Straus children: Beatrice, Irma, Vivian, Minnie, Sara, Jesse, Percy and Herbert


    (Straus Archive)

    The Straus children: Beatrice, Irma, Vivian, Minnie, Sara, Jesse, Percy and Herbert
  • Isidor and Ida with their grandchildren in Eberon, New Jersey in 1905.


    (Straus Archive)

    Isidor and Ida with their grandchildren in Eberon, New Jersey in 1905.
  • Macy's in Herald Square, New York in 1908


    Library of Congress

    Macy's in Herald Square, New York in 1908
  • Memorial service for Isidor and Ida Straus in 1912


    (Straus Archive)

    Memorial service for Isidor and Ida Straus in 1912
  • RMS Titanic



    RMS Titanic
  • The Straus plaque at Macy's


    (Straus Archive)

    The Straus plaque at Macy's
  • Memorial in Straus Park, New York City



    Memorial in Straus Park, New York City

It was a simple yet generous gesture. About 5,000 employees of Macy’s department store contributed what little they could afford to create a memorial plaque for their boss, Isidor Straus, and his wife, Ida, who died in the Titanic disaster.

“Their lives were beautiful and their deaths glorious,” read the inscription on the bronze bas-relief that for almost 100 years graced a wall inside what became known as Macy’s Memorial Entrance, on 34th Street in New York.

But what happened to the plaque is a mystery, one that carries special meaning at this time, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the world’s largest passenger liner of its day.

“I went in one day and it wasn’t there,” said Paul Kurzman, Isidor Straus’s great-grandson and chairman of the board of the Straus Historical Society.

Kurzman, 73, is convinced that he looked at the spot on the wall where the bronze likenesses of his great-grandparents’ faces used to be, and saw instead a blank space.

Depending upon whom you ask, the plaque is in storage, on the wall of a jewelry manager’s office, or accessible only with the help of a construction crew.

Either way, Scott Byers, director of Macy’s archives, told the Forward in February that Kurzman was mistaken in his recollection.

“We closed that entrance in 2001 or 2002” for renovations, Byers said of the Memorial doorway, adding that he is certain the plaque was never removed from the wall.

Today, millions of shoppers hurrying along 34th Street pass the Memorial Entrance, which has been closed off with sheets of green-colored metal. Inside the store, if the tablet is indeed still in its place, it is concealed behind a temporary wall flanking a row of jewelry counters displaying diamond solitaire rings.

Byers said Macy’s explored the idea of removing the plaque while the store was being renovated, but the cost of cutting the tablet away from the marble wall was prohibitive. So, it was left in its place where, Byers said, it had become a decoration in a cosmetics manager’s temporary office.

Listen to a podcast with Paul Kurzman, Isidor Straus’s great-grandson:

“I haven’t seen it physically in 10 years,” he said, adding that he does not expect to see the tablet again until the Herald Square store is further along in its four-year, $400-million renovation project, which is due to be completed in 2015.

The Forward asked Macy’s for permission to see the plaque in February and in March.

At first, Elina Kazan, director of media relations for Macy’s, said that the request would be difficult to fulfill because the plaque was in a fine jewelry area and a visit could pose security concerns. Later, she said the company would need to call in a construction team in order to provide access to the plaque, but she declined to give further details. “Unfortunately, there is no access to the plaque,” Kazan said.

The Straus family owned Macy’s, including its flagship store in New York, from the late 1800s until a group of board members, led by chairman Ed Finkelstein, took over the company in a leveraged buyout in 1986. It is difficult to imagine today the outpouring of grief that followed the deaths of Isidor and Ida Straus.

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